Driving up Vermont 100 from the south, massive 450-foot turbines loom on the horizon of the Lowell Mountains.
The 21 white wind generators ride the ridgeline for roughly 4 miles. From the side vantage points of Albany and Craftsbury, their uniform shape resembles that of Moby Dick swimming on a sea of green forest. To some, the turbines made by the Danish company Vestas look like mechanical insects, tarnishing the tops of picturesque mountains.
On July 3, the turbines were all spinning steadily, as more than 50 people came from across the state and beyond to take a tour of Vermont’s largest capacity renewable energy project. Green Mountain Power (GMP), which owns the 64.5-megawatt (mW) plant, is offering the public weekly tours of the turbines through the end of August.
The entrance to the utility road that leads up to the turbines is just south of the junction of Vermont 100 and 58, past the signs on the houses that scream: “Green Mountain Power Destroyed this Home.”
Gert Tetreault, a part-time employee for GMP, greeted the caravan of visitors at the bottom of the steep hill. She was joined by her two grandsons, 11-year-old Colby Wright and 14-year-old Tyler Wright.
“I think it’s a great choice to have because solar power doesn’t work as well over here because we don’t have enough sun,” Tyler said about the project. “Also, it’s out of the way. People say you have to knock down a lot of trees, but I don’t think of it that way.”
Just up the hill at the operations and maintenance building, GMP spokesperson Robert Dostis administered an energetic pop quiz to dozens of visitors about the Kingdom Community Wind project, as it’s termed. For those who answered the questions correctly, he threw them a GMP Frisbee.
“What is the total amount of land that was conserved to offset the (project’s) 135 acres?” he asked.
“2,800 acres,” people yelled out.
“On Lowell Mountain itself there are 1,100 acres that will be conserved; all but 280 in perpetuity,” Dostis said. “The 280 are for the life of the project, plus 25 years … The other land conserved is about 1,700 acres in Eden that is an important wildlife corridor between the Green River Reservoir and the Lowell natural area.”
The permitted life of the project is 25 years.
Vastly differing views and the dollars at hand
Since the Kingdom Community Wind project was proposed in 2009, it has done little to make a cohesive community of Lowell, the surrounding towns and interest groups across the state.
Environmental organizations have wound up at odds with each other. Hardline conservationists have pushed against the project and staunch renewable energy advocates have dug in their heels to protect it. Protests, arrests and passionate legislative battles have ensued since the project was erected. And numerous Vermonters have stuck to their guns on whatever side of the issue they first took to.
“There are people who don’t want it, people who do and people who don’t care,” said Albany Town Clerk Debra Geoffroy. “I don’t think people have changed their view from when it first came up.”
Detractors have thrown the kitchen sink at the project, arguing that it destroyed wildlife corridors, ruined natural watersheds, kills birds and bats, doesn’t produce to capacity, and creates noise and light pollution. Those in favor of the project say that the state can’t grow its renewable energy resources quick enough, and the project is generating significant revenues for Lowell and surrounding towns.
The town of Lowell voted 342-114 in the spring of 2010 to support the project, so long as GMP paid the town at least $400,000 annually. GMP has since agreed to pay Lowell $535,000 annually, with an automatic increase in payments of $32,500 every five years. That agreement lasts for 25 years and means that five years from now the town will bring in $567,500 annually, and in 10 years it will raise $600,000 yearly.
At this year’s Town Meeting, Lowell residents voted to pay down their municipal taxes with the funds and put the remainder into a reserve fund. For more on that issue, read here.
GMP also created the “Good Neighbor Fund” that will allocate dollars to the neighboring towns of Eden, Irasburg, Westfield, Albany and Craftsbury. The allocation is based on the amount the project generates and spent proportionally, based on the area of the town that is within a 5-mile radius of the project. Eden, therefore, will get the largest allocation of what GMP representatives expect to be a combined $180,000 yearly payout.
“It’s a huge disaster for Vermont” vs. “I think we need wind power”
On Wednesday, Robbin Clark and Justin Lindholm walked around the outskirts of the blasted out platform supporting turbine 5. They looked incredulously at the bare rock that was once forest.
Clark lives less than two miles from the project.
“It’s a huge disaster for Vermont,” she said. “The energy is not in demand. We are selling the renewable energy credits to other states that pollute. It’s just not solving the carbon emissions issue. There’s nothing about this project that makes sense.”
Lindholm is the Rutland County member of the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Board, and he works for Vermonters for a Clean Environment, a group that staunchly opposes ridgeline wind developments in Vermont. Lindholm says he began hunting moose in the Lowell Mountains seven years ago.
“Right now, moose are suffering; they can’t stand temperatures above 50 degrees,” he said. “They would sit on these mountains in the wet areas, but they won’t be doing that anymore.”
Lindholm’s biggest gripe is the amount of blasting that GMP did to level off the ridgeline. He has property in Lempster, N.H., home to a 24-mW wind project, and he said they didn’t blast rock in the same manner.
“It’s nowhere near as rugged where they had to blast this much,” he said. “They can do a lot better job of picking their sites. Their siting is no good.”
But George Sargent, who lives “three miles as the bird flies,” says he fully supports the project.
“I’ve hunted here my whole life, and I don’t see how they’ve hurt anything,” he said. “Ain’t changed nothing as far as I’m concerned.”
The noise from the turbines that Clark and many other critics of the site have criticized is a non-issue for Sargent. He says he can’t hear the turbines when he’s at home.
“I don’t have a problem with it,” he said. “I think we need wind power and more of it. I’d rather see that than see all of these dams going up. If a dam breaks loose, a lot of people could die; not many people are going to die from one of these.”
Ed Nedavaska, who lives 15 miles away in Irasburg, can see the mountains from his home. He says that in winter if he is within 5 miles of the project on a windy day, “You might be able to hear them.” But he also adds that the project doesn’t bother him.
“I’m not against them; I don’t have a problem,” he said. “I’d rather see the wind towers than the solar panels. … They take up a lot of property, if you ask me.”
Generation and reeling it in
The turbines’ 170-foot, 30,000-pound blades are comprised of carbon fiber skeletons and fiberglass covers. They attach to 273-foot towers and don’t begin turning until wind speeds reach roughly 8 mph.
Josh Castonguay, GMP director of generation, said that at wind speeds of 26 mph the turbines can hit full capacity, and at 55 mph they are shut down.
In September 2012, GMP bolted in the first turbine 12 feet deep, with anchor rods stretching down 40 feet. By the end of November, all of the turbines were up and running.
Castonguay said that since June 1 the company has kept the turbines from spinning until wind speeds of 10 mph are reached. The aim is to decrease the number of bat deaths.
“ANR and the experts say that at that wind speed the bats aren’t typically flying around,” he said.
The utility is seeking state authorization to kill up to seven bats per year. Since June 1, the company says its consultant, Stantec, hasn’t yet reported any bat deaths. Before that, two bats were found dead, along with 23 birds. Those numbers, Castonguay says, aren’t entirely representative of the death toll because they don’t take into account scavengers and human error.
GMP estimates that its 21 turbines will generate about 180,000 megawatt-hours (mWh) every year. To generate that much energy with solar would require about 800 acres, which is about six times the total acreage of the Lowell wind project, the utility figures.
GMP representatives say this is enough energy to power 24,000 homes. Considering Lowell has about 230 homes, according to the 2010 Census, this project could provide enough electricity in a year to power all of the homes in Lowell more than 100 times over.
Efficiency Vermont data from 2010, suggests that GMP’s estimate is conservative. According to that data, the average Vermont home uses 6,662 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity a year, which would mean this project could power more than 27,000 homes, if it produces 180,000 mWh annually.
But the project provides power intermittently and not when it is necessarily in demand. Grid constraints also cause the plant to regularly curtail, or cut back, power production at times when the turbines are capable of producing more.
ISO New England operates the New England grid. The nonprofit corporation tells GMP how much energy the plant can generate for the grid, even if wind speeds allow for greater production.
“They essentially issue set points every day, and a lot of times, like today, the set point says you can’t do any more than 40 (mW), and we’re producing like 5 (mW),” Castonguay said. “Then, sometimes, there’s good wind speed and they say 40, when we’re doing 45.”
Curtailing energy production is a regular occurrence for the plant. GMP’s Colchester control center maintains the plant’s performance. If ISO New England says the plant can only produce 40 mW, and the plant could be producing more power, a control center operator simply pushes a button to reel in generation, Castonguay said.
“The blades will pitch and the generation system itself can be dialed in when the system hits 40,” he said. “It just stops producing energy.”
Sound and siting
This past winter, GMP commissioned sound studies to see if it was meeting the noise conditions of its permit.
According to its certificate of public good (CPG), its operating permit, the project is not to exceed sound levels of 45 decibels outside of neighboring homes and 30 decibels inside homes. In two instances, one in Eden and one outside of Lowell residents Don and Shirley Nelson’s home, the turbines exceeded 45 decibels. Seven Days’ Kathryn Flagg broke down GMP’s report to the state in detail here.
Castonguay said GMP uses much more advanced techniques to test for sound than were used in a $19,000 Public Service Department test in Sheffield that recently revealed nothing about the level of noise coming from that wind project.
“We actually shut the whole plant off every four to five hours for 20 minutes,” he said. Over a several day period, the utility’s contractor uses high-powered sound equipment and tests decibel levels with the plant on and off to get accurate sound readings.
The issue that led to greater noise levels in winter, Dostis said, was the snow buildup.
Jared Margolis is an attorney who represents the towns of Craftsbury and Albany. In a recent letter to the Public Service Board, the quasi-judicial board that regulates utilities, he wrote: “What is perhaps most concerning to the Towns is that GMP fails to provide any indication of how they will resolve these exceedances, which are not only violations of their CPG, but create conditions that endanger the public health.”
While the noise of the project has generated numerous complaints, the most oft-cited issue is how and where the project was sited. GMP officials say it’s as well sited as any project, and they didn’t blast any more than they needed to.
“We constructed this to have the least impact possible,” Dostis said. “You have this generation on a site that totals 135 acres. When we’re done with restoration the footprint will be closer to 90.”
Castonguay said that the site was designed with careful attention to the balance of the land.
“The rocks that were blasted were crushed and then used,” he said. “Anything excavated was used to refill, so there was next to no outside fill brought in.”
Albany and Craftsbury opposition
The eastern slopes of the Lowell Mountains and the 21 turbines are visible throughout the towns of Albany and Craftsbury.
A strong and vocal faction of residents and local government officials in those towns vehemently oppose the Lowell wind project. But when it was initially proposed, neither town took a vote to gauge the level of support or opposition.
“The towns didn’t have a vote because we were not really well educated on the project. It came suddenly and very fast,” said Susan Houston, a Craftsbury selectboard member. “It was hard to get the ducks in order to say: ‘Wait, what do we think about this?’”
The movement of the project from its initial proposal to final completion took less than four years — a process that critics have panned for not allowing smaller towns a chance to digest the information.
Mike Nelson is the Albany liaison for the project for his selectboard. His parents, Don and Shirley Nelson, live at the base of the Lowell Mountains and have been ardently against the project since its proposal, refusing to sell or lease their hundreds of acres to GMP.
Nelson says the process was rigged in favor of GMP, and he blames it on Gov. Peter Shumlin and his administration.
“It is a foul, stinking administration down there,” he said. “They have absolutely turned me as cynical as possible about public participation in the government. … I am saying that the higher offices exercised a lot of pressure, and people were not able to do their job correctly, in my opinion.”
Nelson says the noise of the turbines makes him and his family ill.
“If you’re sitting inside in the winter with all of the windows closed, you can hear it over the top of the TV,” he said. “I’ve suffered a lot of sleep loss over the last six to eight months. If you walk up to it and listen, it doesn’t sound that bad. But if you live next to it constantly, and it never stops, it disrupts the internal clock in your body; it throws everything off and makes you sick.”
Not everyone in the two towns are opposed to the project, and Jimmy Jones, a Craftsbury selectboard member, says Houston is the only member of the board that is against it. He and selectboard chair, Bruce Urie, are neutral, Jones said.
On Wednesday, Houston and Nelson were joined by members of the Craftsbury Conservation Commission. Steve Wright, former Vermont Fish & Wildlife commissioner for Gov. Madeleine Kunin, is the commission’s lead liaison for the project.
Wright is an effective organizer and has staunchly opposed the project since it was proposed — pulling together protests, events and writing an op-ed in the New York Times about the issue.
Wright says the tiny town of Lowell was bought out.
“That level of financial influence has a huge affect on appropriate natural resources protection and therefore the long-term interests of the citizens and their town,” he said. “If we walk in and drop a bunch of money on the table, it changes the framework of the decision.”
Despite Wright’s best efforts, the turbines were built. But he and the others in Craftsbury and Albany, say that their cause is still not a lost one.
“It’s affirmed a certain notion that is; Vermont’s emotional, economic and ecological health comes from the mountains, and blowing up mountains is a direct assault on our health,” he said. “I think the people of the two towns of Albany and Craftsbury have helped make that point for the entire state, and in, some part, for all of New England.”
Updated at 10:08 a.m. on July 5, 2013.